In sports recently, the issue of mental health has been a matter of focus. It began in the Olympics with Simone Biles. Then Michael Phelps brought his own perspective. More recently Naomi Osaka has reenergized the discussion with Tom Brady adding his thoughts, among many.
Many sports fans, and some sports commentators have been… less than sympathetic. This is hardly new. Roberto Duran was castigated by his fans (and foes) for “giving up” in his with Sugar Ray Leonard. Although he claimed he quit because of stomach cramps, many people saw it as a sign of weak character.
Some of this, however, is how it is framed. If Duran went back in the ring and allowed himself to be knocked out (perhaps taking a dive, perhaps just allowing his physical problem to play out) he probably would not have gotten as much grief. If Biles expressed her problems as being more physical than mental, or if Osaka had expressed things in terms of family issues or wanting to take a break, perhaps the responses would be different.
We have generally gotten comfortable with athletes “quitting” due to physical injury. We have also gotten somewhat comfortable with sports stars taking a break due to grief (such as death in the family). Less slack is given for issues of relationships and psychoemotional problems. Perhaps people are least in understanding of problems that come from what I might call spiritual problems. What I mean by that is struggles in terms of purpose, ethics, and character.
What can we say in response to this? I would suggest two things that, unfortunately, are somewhat in conflict with each other.
Thought #1. It is good to be able to speak honestly about one’s brokenness. It is good that one does not feel the need to make up fake reasons for struggles, or hide the struggles. Healing comes from identifying one’s brokenness and acting on it honestly. Deception, and especially self-deception, does not bring healing. Additionally, bringing problems out into the open can be good for other people, to come forward and get the public to talk about these issues.
Thought #2. As good as it is to talk honestly about one’s brokenness openly, it can be self-destructive to share with people who are judgmental or in other ways toxic. It is good to share with those who are trustworthy.
Ideally, one should find people that one can trust to talk about one’s areas of brokenness. For celebrities, this can be tough. Far too many people are invested in their lives. We call these people fans, but fans (derived from the term fanatic) are often not trustworthy people.
Religious leaders can also have the same problem. Some religious leaders are put up on a pedestal. It is difficult to talk about their spiritual brokenness (issues of purpose, ethics, and character). Both friends and foes can be toxic. It can be even a bigger concern in faith communities that spiritualize physical, relational, and psychoemotional problems (seeing them as sinful, or the result of personal sin).
We think of Heaven as a place of absence of problems or brokenness. That may be accurate. However, I would like to suggest a different image of Heaven. Heaven is a place of absolutely trustworthy relationships– a place where brokenness can be shared freely and openly because everyone will respond in a way that is supportive and therapeutic. Heaven is then a community of healing.
The Bible says that there is a day coming when Heaven comes to Earth— but that day has not yet arrived. We live in the tension between the two thoughts above. It is good to be open and public, but sharing with untrustworthy people causes serious problems.
For religious leaders, the following suggestions are worth considering:
- Have a network of supporters (not fans). Supporters hold people accountable. Supporters listen and respond therapeutically.
- Don’t put oneself on a pedestal. Others are less likely to do it if one does not do it oneself. Don’t try to put on an air of invulnerability or perfection.
- Train one’s flock properly. Do not teach toxic theology that is more focused on judging than healing. Help them struggle with issues of theodicy and sin with wisdom.
- Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. That is a sign of strength not weakness.
There will always be unhelpful friends and foes… but one can minimize their effect, allowing one to be publicly broken.